When she first entered the race to be the next governor of Wisconsin, Kelda Roys was not particularly well known, especially outside of Madison. But that has quickly changed for a variety of reasons to the point that of the seven Democratic gubernatorial straw polls taken so far, Roys has now won six.
“That’s very exciting because it’s different audiences and different geographies for the different polls. But I think what it shows is that people are excited about building a movement that is forward-looking where we’re talking about the Wisconsin that we want to build together,” Roys tells Madison365 in an interview at her home on the near west side of Madison, which also doubles as her campaign headquarters.
Roys is a former state representative and the founder and CEO of real estate tech company OpenHomes, a real estate brokerage that uses technology to help people sell and buy homes more easily and affordably. She graduated from New York University in 2000 and earned her law degree from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 2004. Having just turned 39 this week, she is the youngest gubernatorial candidate in the field and is one of two women in the field, along with state Sen. Kathleen Vinehout.
“I, like many women, had to be asked a lot to consider this. People kept coming to me and telling me why I was the strongest candidate to run for this office and beat Walker,” Roys remembers.
She started making calls and finding that other people thought it was a really good idea, too.
“And then I woke up one day and I looked and saw what happened in New Jersey and in Virginia where hope was winning out over these radical right-wing agendas and I was really inspired,” she says. “I felt, ‘I have to do this.’ I think if Wisconsin where not just my kids … but every kid can thrive, we got to have a new governor right now. We can’t afford to continue down this path.
“I do a lot of listening as I travel around the state. I certainly have issues that I’m very passionate about,” she adds. “Obviously, health care is something I’ve worked on for a very long time. Public education, just because that’s the engine of the future of our economy. I care a lot about climate change and protecting our natural resources – because that’s one thing you can’t reverse. Mass incarceration and criminal justice reform – those are things I’ve been passionate about since I was in law school.”
Roys says that as she travels the state of Wisconsin campaigning that issues of concern are very similar most everywhere she goes.
“A lot of people in Madison say to me, ‘How can you relate to people who aren’t from Madison?’ Well, technically, I’m not from Madison. [Roys was born in Marshfield, Wis.] And the concerns throughout the state are the same. We have common challenges and we need a leader who is focused on solving them instead of using them to pit us against each other,” she says.
“Schools, education, roads, infrastructure, clean drinking water, clean lakes, lack of access to good transit, broadband connectivity and wireless receptivity,” she adds. “I spend a great deal of time driving across this state and from personal experience I can tell you that we need to do much better on these things.”
I point out a common Gov. Walker talking point to Roys: Unemployment throughout the United States and here in Wisconsin is really low right now.
“Well, unemployment is low but that’s such an incomplete picture,” she says. “Many Republicans are still living in this fantasy world from the 1950s where if you work … you’re not poor. But now we have a permanent underclass of people who are working really, really hard. They’re working 40, 50, 60, 70 hours a week – multiple jobs – and they cannot make ends meet. They are living in poverty despite working extremely hard. The structure of our economy has changed and I think that there are a lot of people who are still living in the past. The measures that they are proposing don’t fully account for the fact that our generation could never go into a company and get a gold watch at the end. Many of us went into a world where we started $50,000 or more in debt. We weren’t buying houses in our 20s like our parents were. The prices were too high. We couldn’t save enough for a down payment because we had student-loan debt.
“There have been these structural shifts in the economy that our current leaders don’t recognize and we need somebody who is thinking far enough into the future about what work is going to look like and how we can structure an economy where we can still succeed,” Roys adds. “It’s great that unemployment is low, but here’s the bottom line: If everybody has two or three jobs and they can’t make ends meet, it doesn’t really matter what the employment number is.”
“Our Next Governor Must Reduce Wisconsin’s Persistent Racial Disparities”
It’s been well documented through reports and articles over the last few years that Wisconsin is a terrible place to be if you are not white. It’s an embarrassing fact. Black children in Wisconsin, for example, face the nation’s biggest gap in well-being compared to white children.
Last month, Roys recently submitted an editorial to Madison365 titled “Our Next Governor Must Reduce Wisconsin’s Persistent Racial Disparities” that delved deep into what Wisconsin needed to do to turn around these embarrassing numbers in an increasingly diverse state.
“It’s something that I care about a lot and I think about a lot. Especially as I’ve become a parent. I’m very aware of the privilege that I’ve had and have experienced in my life being white and being from educated parents who were able to provide a lot of opportunities for me that other people didn’t have,” Roys says. “I’ve always been very aware of racial injustice. It’s something my parents talked about when I was a small child.
“I think about the things that my children are going to have in terms of opportunity and I want every child to have that,” she adds. “The governor has a tremendous amount of power to address racial disparities in a lot of different areas – health care, criminal justice, education, environmental justice, housing. It’s hard to imagine a more important priority than working to no longer be the worst state in the union for black children.”
Mass incarceration is a topic that is very important to Roys, she says. “I’ve been very concerned about this issue for 20 years. That’s one of the core reasons I started volunteering for [former Dane County Executive] Kathleen Falk. She was talking about the school-to-prison pipeline way back in 2001,” Roys says. “We are having people in prison and keeping people in prison at very little public safety benefit to our state at great cost – financial and moral.
“The governor has a tremendous amount of power to address racial disparities in a lot of different areas – health care, criminal justice, education, environmental justice, housing. It’s hard to imagine a more important priority than working to no longer be the worst state in the union for black children.”
Roys says she remembers when she first ran for the state Legislature 10 years ago, she was warned not to talk about mass incarceration as a problem.
“’You have to be tough on crime. You don’t want to be seen as coddling criminals,’ they would say. But the conversation has really shifted nationwide on that – thank goodness – to ‘let’s get smart on crime,'” she says. “Let’s be evidence-based on how we are allocating these public safety resources whether it’s law enforcement and policing and how do we serve communities best to create public safety … whether it’s prosecution and bail and charging decisions and plea bargaining … or whether it’s things that happen in prison – treatment, diversion and re-entry.
“The rest of the nation has completely transformed how we are doing things; although we still have some old-fashioned ideas among the Republican Legislature in Wisconsin,” she adds. “But for the most part, the people understand that we can’t continue to do what we’re doing. And that’s very encouraging.
Looking at the numbers, Wisconsin as a state that overall is very clearly becoming more diverse.
“Yes. The numbers are still relatively small as a percentage of our population, but look at the areas of the state that are growing. We have this slow-moving crisis where people our age are leaving the state and moving out. We’re a graying state overall,” Roys says. “If we want to reverse that trend, we need to look and see how we can make Wisconsin a vibrant place that young people want to stay when they grow up or move here.
“And not just in Madison or southeastern Wisconsin, but in rural communities all over the state that need to attract and keep younger people if they want to be vibrant,” she adds. “Part of that is increasing our diversity and being more welcoming and inclusive to people who want to make a life here.
“Our next governor is going to have a huge challenge to try and turn this state around into a place where everyone can have the opportunity to succeed,” she continues. “I think we need someone – especially at this moment – who has experience turning these big ideas that we have into real results. That’s something that my whole life of work has prepared to do.”
National Profile Rises
Earlier this year, Roys’ national profile rocketed up (and her campaign got a major boost) when she shared her first campaign ad in which she is seen breastfeeding her 4-month-old daughter, Avalon. The video got coverage across the U.S. and the world by outlets like the CNN, BBC, Glamour magazine and “The Today Show.” The ad (below) was titled “Our Girls” and talked about her efforts to pass legislation to ban the chemical bisphenol A (BPA), the toxic chemical commonly found in baby bottles.
“It was a long day and I was filming for hours and we were talking about a lot of different stories. It wasn’t really a script for the video,” Roys remembers. “The baby just started fussing and I grabbed her like a mother would and started feeding her. When they sent back the video and it was me telling the story and I was nursing for that brief moment, I thought, ‘Oh… Ok!’
“I showed it to my mom and she has always been very supportive but not afraid to give me key advice,” Roys continues. “She looked at the video and said, ‘It looks like you and it sounds like you … and I love it.”
Roys pauses for a moment as almost on cue she hears her 8-month-old baby crying in an adjacent room and she steps away to comfort her. Roys excuses herself, laughing. “You’ve been here many times,” referring to my own baby girl.
Soon she is back and without missing a beat, Roys picks up the conversation exactly where she left off.
“Maybe it’s because of who the president is and how he has treated women … but I think that I, and so many other women, are done trying to tip-toe around and please everyone and try to fit into some box that a ‘female-elected official’ needs to fit in to,” says Roys. “I’m not going to wear those shoulder pads. I’m going to be who I am and I think voters are going to respond to that.”
It has gotten better, but women – who make up 51 percent of the U.S. overall population – are still painfully underrepresented in the political sphere. “It would be wonderful after 170 years to have a woman governor finally. I think we still have a lot of work to do to perfect this union, as Barack Obama would say,” Roys says.
“As I travel around the state, there are a lot of people who come up to me and ask, ‘Can my daughter take a picture with you?’ There are a lot of people excited about the prospect of having a woman governor,” she adds. “At the same time, I can’t believe that in 2018 that we’re even talking about it.
“This is actually the first year, according to my pollster, where it is an advantage to be a woman on the ballot,” she continues. “Normally, that is not the case. The greatest generic ballot contrast is when you have a Democratic woman running against a Republican man. That’s the biggest spread.”
Judging from electoral results from earlier this year, women are clearly energized and fired up for upcoming elections not just in Wisconsin but throughout the United States.
“And not just because I’m a woman but because of my track record that is unparalleled working for women from reproductive rights to helping victims of domestic violence,” says Roys, who, before her time in the Wisconsin State Assembly, spent four years as executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin where she traveled the state and developed innovative, successful efforts to expand reproductive health care access.
“People want to feel like we’re Wisconsin again”
Roys was born in Marshfield, a small city right in the middle of Wisconsin that has a population of about 19,000. Her family soon lived outside of the tiny town of Medford in Taylor County. “We lived in an old one-room schoolhouse that my parents remodeled into a house,” she says. “We moved to Rice Lake for a few years before moving to Madison for elementary school.
“I even had a pet goat. Her name was Penelope,” she adds, laughing.
She said that her parents could have settled anywhere in the United States but they chose Wisconsin because the people were so nice and because the state had so much to offer.
“There’s so much that’s great about our state and that I love about growing up here and living here,” Roys says. “I want to cultivate those things so that everybody can thrive.
“When I travel throughout the state the topics that come up the most are public education, health care, the cost of prescription drugs. People are really feeling the impact of the policies of the last 8 years,” Roys adds. “But more broadly, I think people are just ready to turn the page. They don’t want to rehash all of the arguments we’ve had over the last 8 years. There’s a sense that something really special about Wisconsin has been lost as neighbors have been pitted against each other and families have been torn apart to the point where they can’t even speak because of these political battles.
“That is not very consistent with Wisconsin nice and Wisconsin culture,” she adds. “People want to feel like we’re Wisconsin again and that we can work together to solve these common challenges rather than just having fight after fight.”
One of the things that has changed since Roys was a kid in small-town Wisconsin, is that Wisconsin’s middle class has been on the decline.
“That is huge. When you look at the accumulative impact of all these economic shifts – vastly increased costs in things like health care, education, child care, energy – and yet wages have not gone up commiserate with that … people in our generation are facing a very different economic situation and we have to address that immediately,” she says.
“We’ve taken the social safety net and we’ve turned it into a weapon to use against people rather than something to make sure that we as a society can function,” she adds. “We all do better when people can have stable housing. It costs us a lot less when children can have good nutrition and good schools than it does to build a bunch of prisons.”
President Donald Trump was in Wisconsin yesterday to help break ground on Taiwan’s Foxconn Technology Group who recently announced a $10 billion mega plant in the state that will bring jobs but could end up costing Wisconsin taxpayers roughly $4.5 billion.
As a small business owner, Roys says she’s not a very big fan of Foxconn.
“I think it’s a slap in the face to people who have worked very hard to build businesses in Wisconsin,” she says. “Whether it’s somebody like me who runs a small business or somebody like Judy Faulkner who runs EPIC, nobody is giving us $4.5 billion. Nobody is telling us that we don’t have to follow any environmental laws.
“What’s transparently obvious about this deal is that it was done for one reason and that’s because we have a governor with a failed promise on jobs who is desperate to get some good headlines,” Roys adds. “This decision, like every other decision, is about him advancing his own political career and his own ambitions and putting that ahead of the needs of Wisconsinites.”
If a Democrat wins the gubernatorial election in November, it will be very likely that she will be dealing with a divided Legislature. “Although I’m very proud of my progressive values – I think they’re Badger values – I well understand that we live in a state with a lot of ideological diversity and we have to be willing to listen to people with whom we disagree and to take into consideration their views so we can actually get things done for the people of Wisconsin,” Roys says. “I among the field have a great track record of doing that.”
Giving her a great deal of hope has been U.S. elections that have taken place where Democrats have made gains. Here in Wisconsin, there’s been a huge shift with Democrats flipping an open state Senate seat in northwestern Wisconsin in January and liberal-backed Rebecca Dallet winning a statewide race for state Supreme Court in April.
“Look at that map. This is as close to a proxy as we’re going to get for the governor’s race in November,” Roys says, referring to Dallet. “Here we have a progressive, Gen X woman, lawyer mom running for an open Supreme Court seat running against Walker’s handpicked guy. It couldn’t be a starker contrast. And she didn’t just win; she cleaned house. She turned the map really blue and that was really exciting.”
Roys believes it portends well for what will happen in November.
“I think people should be feeling really optimistic and that when we pay attention, when we get off the couch and go knock on doors and make phone calls, give our money, give our time … that’s how we create the Blue Wave,” she says. “It’s not a meteorological phenomenon that happens; it’s a thing that we build together.”
The Democratic primary election will be held Aug. 14. The winner will face Walker on Nov. 6.
“I think our state can be the best place to raise a family and the best place to grow a business … but it’s going to take some work. I feel quite a bit of optimism given all of the elections we’ve had. I think last year, people thought, ‘Well, we just don’t have a chance here. We’ve been gerrymandered and voter suppressed and campaign financed into oblivion and we’re not going to have a chance to restore,’” Roys says. “Now it feels much different. There is the energy and the enthusiasm of people all over the state who are saying, ‘We’re not willing to be depressed about this. We’re going to get active about this.’ And they are making a huge difference.
“I think that Wisconsin can be that place where everybody feels like they belong and everybody feels like they can thrive,” she adds. “It’s going to take a lot of work, but I’m confident we can do it.”